By Lynn Venhaus
Whether you embrace the holiday season by turning on Christmas music soon after Halloween or are in the “Bah, Humbug” camp year-round, “Spirited” may surprise you as a sweet-and-salty confection that’s both playful and parody.

A merry musical comedy that offers a fresh twist on the evergreen “A Christmas Carol” from the ghosts’ point of view also mocks the endless parade of holiday entertainment and its conventions.

And that’s refreshing, given that the Hallmark Channel has started its festive onslaught and other streaming services will churn out dozens of films before the new year. We all have our annual favorites, of course, and I wouldn’t be surprised if “Spirited” is among the perennials in years to come.

This flip on Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella is that the Ghost of Christmas Present (Will Ferrell, in charming doofus mode) selects one dark soul to be reformed by a visit from spirits on Christmas Eve. Sunita Mani is Past, Tracy Morgan is Yet to Come (in voice only), and Patrick Page is Jacob Marley.

He must find a selfish man who will see why he ended up miserable and alone, and why he should change. But his choice, an “unredeemable” marketing shark Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds doing his slick, sardonic persona) turns the tables and suddenly, Present is reexamining his life.

This bros-meets-Scrooged affair, co-written by Sean Anders and John Morris, is funny and clever, blending the 19th century behaviors with 22nd century attitudes, and Ferrell and Reynolds are quick with the quips and the wisecracks. Featuring Christmas movie Easter Eggs, there’s even an “Elf” nod, of course.

Anders and Morris are the writing team behind a string of genial just-folks comedies like “Instant Family,” “Daddy’s Home,” “We’re the Millers” and “Horrible Bosses 2.” They’re not re-inventing the wheel here, and this is entertaining enough to survive repeat viewings.

While kidding about “the afterlife is a musical!” and having a jaunty tone about the insertion of music numbers, “Spirited” is committed to the format. They’ve staged snappy song-and-dance numbers by choreographer Chloe Arnold, who’s been doing those delightful “Crosswalk musicals” and other numbers on James Corden’s “The Late Late Show.”

She knows what’s required of big splashy numbers, and the smiling dancers have pep in their steps – these are spirited homages on a major scale.

The songs are written by the current showtune golden boys Benji Pasek and Justin Paul, who recently produced and wrote original material for “Lyle, Lyle Crocodile.”

Pasek and Paul, who adapted “A Christmas Story” into a Broadway musical in 2009, are one award shy of an EGOT. They are Oscar winners for “La La Land,” Tony winners for “Dear Evan Hansen,” and their “The Greatest Showman” soundtrack won a Grammy Award and has sold over 7 million copies worldwide.

The funniest song here, not unlike the ironic “South Park” numbers, is “Good Afternoon.” The movie is bracketed by the tap-happy “That Christmas Morning Feelin,’” which is likely the catchiest takeaway. “Do a Little Good” is memorable and Spencer has a genuinely touching ballad “The View From Here.” Who knew she could sing? Or for that matter, Reynolds!

Ferrell, who showed his ease with music on “Saturday Night Live” — in such classic sketches as Marty Culp, along with Ana Gasteyer as his wife Bobbi Mohan Culp, who taught music at the Altadena Middle School, and the best-ever “More Cowbell” — is a natural, and Reynolds also demonstrates his willingness to have fun performing. (And he certainly fares better than Pierce Brosnan in “Mamma Mia!”)

The sweet part of the story is the Briggs family connections, and the director’s sister, Andrea Anders, a veteran of sitcoms including “Joey,” “Ted Lasso” and “Young Sheldon,” plays Reynolds’ sister Carrie, while Joe Tippett plays baby brother Owen and Marlow Barkley is the young niece.

This is a cheery, we’re not taking ourselves too seriously holiday offering where there seemed to be much effort made in getting all the elements right.

So, heat up the cocoa, haul the ugly sweater out of storage, and enjoy getting into the holiday spirit. May you have one of the the hap, hap, happiest Christmas movie watches since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny Kaye.

“Spirited” is a 2022 musical comedy directed by Sean Anders starring Will Ferrell, Ryan Reynolds, Octavia Spencer, Sunita Mani and Patrick Page. It’s Rated PG-13 for language, some suggestive material, and thematic elements, and the run time is 2 hours, 7 minutes. In theaters Nov. 11 and streaming on Apple TV + starting Nov. 18. Lynn’s Grade: B

By Lynn Venhaus

With nods to “Back to the Future,” “The Terminator” and “Field of Dreams,” not to mention a 1949 hit song “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)” by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadiens, “The Adam Project” has a familiar but fun retro vibe that relies on its gifted cast to save the day.

This personality-driven science-fiction drama is a combo plate of movie themes set in a sci-fi time-travel world. The action is more video game than epic but has a sincere emotional center, working in a grieving family’s healing.

Pre-teen Adam Reed is small for his age but is quick with quips, and trying to cope with the death of his science professor dad Louis (Mark Ruffalo), who may have accidentally created time travel, as is his exasperated mom Ellie (Jennifer Garner). While home alone, a spacecraft lands in his backyard, piloted by his now-40-year-old buff self (Ryan Reynolds). “Big Adam” has come back from 2050 to find his endangered wife Laura (Zoe Saldana) but was aiming for 2018. They must work together to save the world, each other and strengthen their family ties.

Reuniting cheeky monkey Ryan Reynolds with his “Free Guy” director Shawn Levy, who has a knack for crowd pleasers (“A Night at the Museum,” “Stranger Things” TV series), this film capitalizes on the star’s strengths.

Reynolds, who looks like the Homecoming King but acts like the class clown who’s on the honor roll, rapidly delivers sarcasm and wisecracks in a jaunty way. He easily slips into renegade roles. Both Reynolds and Levy are producers here, and they demonstrate a collaborative spark (just announced that they will work on “Deadpool 3” together).

As Adam Reed, once a scrawny, nerdy kid with nimble verbal skills who grows up to be a buff fighter pilot, Reynolds quips and cajoles with the skills he’s shown in “Deadpool,” “Red Notice” and last summer’s surprise hit “Free Guy.”

He meets his match when he comes face-to-face with smart young Adam, his 12-year-old self in 2022 — Walker Scobell making his film debut, who is truly Reynolds’ mini-me. Together, they are very entertaining and use their powers for good.

It gets a little head-trippy when they go back to 2018, “Big” Adam’s intended target, and their dad is still alive. They have reason to believe his tech project financier Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener) is an unethical megalomaniac with only dollar signs in mind. Despite a brief appearance, Mark Ruffalo’s scruffy workaholic professor lends both gravitas and heart to the story.

Relatable Jennifer Garner plays Ellie Reed, Adam’s overwhelmed widowed mom, while Zoe Saldana, who knows a thing or two about sci-fi, having been in “Avatar” and the “Guardians of the Galaxy” series, effortlessly appears as Adam’s fierce warrior wife Laura, who has been missing and presumed dead.

That’s the thing about time travel – logic goes out the window, and the more you think about connecting the dots, the more your head hurts. Your brain needn’t work that hard about wormholes, quantum leaps, electro-magnetic particles, and time streams.

Four screenwriters are credited, starting with Jonathan Tropper, who adapted his novel for the 2014 film “This Is Where I Leave You,” starring Jason Bateman, Adam Driver, Corey Stoll and Tina Fey as siblings sitting shiva after their father’s death, which was directed by Levy.

T.S. Nowlin, who wrote “The Maze Runner” series, and Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, who were Emmy-nominated for the “Big Mouth” animated series, were brought on board.

The dialogue is zippy and the action has genuine peril, although Sorian’s henchmen look more like Daft Punk than Stormtroopers.

As is the digital-age custom – and following James Gunn’s lead in the “Guardians” movies, all action scenes are accompanied by radio-friendly classic rock hits. There’s Boston’s “Long Time,” Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times” and Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” – sense a time theme? That clever touch carries over to a scene when you can discern Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” as the instrumental music heard in the drug store.

The past meets the future – or is it the future meets the past? — in this amiable film, but the sci-fi takes a back seat to the family story that matters more, illustrated by a dad playing catch with his sons. As “Field of Dreams” still shows to this day, when grown men blubber about a baseball field surrounded by cornfields, something so elemental from childhood can be so profound.

“Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think
Enjoy yourself, while you’re still in the pink
The years go by, as quickly as a wink”

“The Adam Project” is a 2022 sci-fi action-adventure comedy directed by Shawn Levy and starring Ryan Reynolds, Walker Scobell, Jennifer Garner, Zoe Saldana, Mark Ruffalo and Catherine Keener. It is rated PG-13 for violence/action, language and suggestive references and it runs 1 hour, 46 minutes. Streaming on Netflix beginning March 11. Lynn’s Grade: B.

By Lynn Venhaus
Clever, brimming with wit and good nature, “Free Guy” is one of the most pleasant surprises of the summer.

An action video game, comic-book slate of heroes and villains and romantic comedy rolled into one, the plot focuses on a mild-mannered bank teller Guy (Ryan Reynolds) who discovers that he’s actually a NPC inside a brutal, open world video game. When he spontaneously decides to become his own hero, and proceeds to rewrite his story so that he saves the world — on his own terms, he unleashes a frantic race against time. Antwan (Taika Waititi), a megalomaniac tech mastermind, is hell-bent against Guy succeeding.

As one who isn’t a gamer – and had to look up what a NPC is (non-player character), I expected to be lost, but thanks to an engaging cast, I could not only keep up but also be entertained.

Set in a world of video game creation and role-playing, a town called Free City is where the action takes place, a busy burg with old-fashioned charm. Think Mayberry meets Metropolis. 

Every day, the mayhem and mean streets one associates with video game action occurs as most everyone is trying to go about their daily lives. They deal with explosions, gunfire, criminals and stunts like it’s normal.

Guy’s jovial best friend, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), is a security guard. The simple pleasure of a good cup of coffee makes their day, which includes a routine where they avoid gunshots, falling debris and hulking monsters.

Their oblivion and good hearts are refreshing, but of course, if there wasn’t a conflict, there would not be a movie. Can an action movie, particular in the sci-fi realm, be light-hearted? 

“Free Guy” demonstrates that a little originality and a lot of technical acumen can produce a fizzy summer blockbuster not bogged down in high expectations.

As agreeable as cheery Guy is to watch going about his day, reminiscent of “The Truman Show,” waiting to pounce is a nefarious computer genius, Antwan. Waititi, the wildly talented actor-writer-director who won an Oscar for writing “JoJo Rabbit,” is gloriously over-the-top playing the devious guru who has underhandedly ripped off an enterprising programming whiz Keys (Joe Keery) and his resourceful co-creator Millie (Jodie Comer) by stealing their innovative life’s work.

Somehow, Guy switches up the rules and displays a mind of his own, which is unheard of in this universe. The whole world is watching as “Blue Shirt Guy” captures viewers/players’ hearts, and he is motivated because he is attracted to one of the tough female characters, also played by the winning Comer, Emmy winner for ‘Killing Eve.”

Game on! The action gets fast, furious – and fun. Shawn Levy has directed this in a high-spirited way. He’s known for the “Night at the Museum” franchise and the streaming TV show “Stranger Things,” and keeps the action moving and the story sharp.

The actor who has played Steve Harrington, Joe Keery, is a likable mild-mannered gamer and smart techie who is on to Antwan’s schemes. With the help of his cynical work pal Mouser, the well-cast Utkarsh Ambudkar, they’re one step ahead.

The cast appears to be ‘all in’ – and having a blast with the story’s playfulness. Howery, whose breakthrough was “Get Out” and has carved a niche as a good buddy, has a nice camaraderie with the everyman movie star Reynolds.

Reynolds is at his best as a good guy caught up in something he doesn’t understand. He has a knack for playing regular dudes under pressure, ready with a quip, and doesn’t shrink from saving the day. This role is more jocular, like DC’s “Deadpool,” his biggest hit, and he’s thoroughly charming.

“Free Guy” possesses a self-assured quality, and its veteran screenwriters know a thing or two about crowd-pleasers. Zak Penn, who sold his first script, “The Last Action Hero” when he was 23, has worked on films in the Marvel Comics Universe, including “X-Men 2” and “The Avengers,” and wrote “Ready Player One,” which bears a strong resemblance to the crux of “Free Guy.”

His co-writer Matt Lieberman has been working on such family-friendly fare as “The Christmas Chronicles” starring Kurt Russell as Santa Claus and the animated “The Addams Family” reboot.

Jodie Comer and Joe Keery in “Free Guy”

Together, they have fashioned a breezy romp that’s well-suited for the big screen and makes nimble use of a crackerjack cast, who has splendidly mastered green screen acting.

“Free Guy,” which was slated for release last summer, is one of those rare August treats that unexpectedly has provided a delightful cinematic experience. 

“Free Guy” is a 2021 action, sci-fi, fantasy, comedy directed by Shawn Levy and starring Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Taika Waititi, Joe Keery and Utkarsh Ambudkar. Rated: PG-13 for strong fantasy violence throughout, language and crude/suggestive references, its run time is 1 hour, 55 minutes. It opened in theatres on Aug. 13. Lynn’s Grade: B+